The first ever puzzle is said to date back to around 1762. It was a map glued onto a thin section of wood then sawn into pieces. Its creator, a cartographer called John Spilsbury, intended it as an educational tool and went on to sell hundreds like it. It also went on to inspire puzzles relating to other academic disciplines, such as botany and history. Indeed it was only in the mid-19th century that purely aesthetic pictures began being used.
Since then, puzzles have become a beloved pastime worldwide, seen as both relaxing and challenging. And they’re even lauded as having health benefits. For children, they’re a fun way to develop fine motor skills. For adults, they’re seen as a method of brain training.
Today, how jigsaw puzzles are made involves more paperboard than wood. And there are seemingly endless varieties. But the concept remains broadly the same; that of piecing together a mosaic of interlocking pieces to create a complete image.
So, how are jigsaw puzzles made? How do they make a jigsaw puzzle fit together and how are jigsaw puzzles produced in high volume? Read on to find out.
How Jigsaw Puzzles are Made: What do we mean by Jigsaw Puzzles?
Before asking “how are jigsaw puzzles produced”, it’s worth defining what types of puzzle we’re referring to. Because jigsaws really do come in all shapes and sizes. Just some of the differentiating factors include:
This means both physical dimensions and number of pieces. The range is pretty much endless. From an A5-sized two-piece baby puzzle or a family-sized 500-piece to the world’s biggest ever puzzle – a 12,320 piece enormity about the size of an American football field.
When we think of puzzles, most of us imagine a flat rectangle. In fact, not only are there round, square and blob-shaped flat puzzles, but many are three-dimensional. You can even make a Hogwarts puzzle.
This can refer to both the printed area of the puzzle and its backing. Whilst wooden puzzles are still made in specialist cases, the vast majority of puzzles are now printed on paper and mounted onto cardboard.
When we ask “how are jigsaws made”, we’ll be referring to a standard 1,000 piece cardboard-backed type. Interestingly, while referred to as 1,000 on the box, most of these jigsaws are set as 38 by 27 pieces, totalling 1,026 pieces overall.
How are Jigsaw Puzzles Made? Artwork
Answering “how are jigsaws made” begins by focusing on the puzzle’s most standout feature: the artwork. Not only is this often the reason a puzzle is picked, but it’s also the goal and end result.
Today, the sky’s the limit on what type of picture can be used. It might depict playful kittens in a rustic workshop, a country cottage or a scene from an animated blockbuster. A more recent trend has been that of impossibly homogenous images such as psychedelic patterns, zebra stripes or even solid colours. Then there are personalised puzzles made from the customer’s own photo.
The three most common sources for puzzle fronts however are:
- original sketches by in-house designers or commissioned third-parties;
- recogniseable images from the big or small screen; and
- famous works of art.
Whatever the origin, turning it into a puzzle usually begins with a sketch. Designers work together to ensure that the graphics are suitable for the intended puzzle, often seeking to achieve a balance between something challenging and yet engaging.
This image is then scanned and intricately adapted to a digital format using editing software. This is also the stage at which the box graphics will be designed. Once approved, the cutting pattern can be planned.
A jigsaw cutting pattern determines how it will be split into its individual pieces. With the image finalised, it’s printed and overlaid with paper upon which this pattern is mapped.
More expensive puzzles are designed so that each piece is unique, ensuring that they can only correctly fit in one iteration. One possible consideration for the pattern includes ensuring that cut lines do not obscure important aspects of the image.
Once this design is approved, it’s time to make the manufacturing components for the manufacturing process.
Making the Printing Plate
Thanks to its cost efficiency and volume capacity, most puzzle manufacturers employ a lithographic process to print puzzle graphics onto paper. This entails creating a plate which will transfer the ink to the paper surface. The plate, made of plastic or metal, is treated so that the artwork elements are greased and blank elements are wet. Later, when an oil-based ink is applied to the plate, it will only adhere to the greased parts. There are two principles at play here:
- Like attracting like – the oily ink is attracted to the greased part of the plate.
- Immiscibility of oil and water – oil and water don’t mix, so those parts of the plate not to be printed stay paint-free thanks to being dampened by water.
As an additional note, there is an increasing trend for laser printed puzzles which has become more common in recent times.
Making the Cutting-Die
An important aspect of how jigsaw puzzles are made is how they are cut.
This is done using a cutting die, which is a bit like a big cookie-cutter made in the shape and dimensions of the cutting pattern. Each piece is mapped out by forming it from lengths of steel blades, which are then framed inside a wooden mount.
With all the manufacturing components in place, the next piece of the process of how jigsaw puzzles are made falls into place. It’s time for printing.
The printing plate is mounted onto a roller, which presses the inked image onto paper. Types and quality of paper vary. Many puzzle enthusiasts prefer a matte type as it eliminates glare.
Printing is carried out one colour at a time using the CYMK system. The paper is conveyed from one printer to the next, layering on the colours cyan, magenta, yellow and black until the image is produced.
Next, the printed paper is mounted onto a thin, stiff backing, usually cardboard. Again, the quality of cardboard varies, as does the adhesive used to bond it to the paper. Generally, the smoother the cardboard, the better the eventual fit. Mounted prints must then dry, which can take a few days.
Once dried, it’s time for the puzzle to be cut. The prepared die is mounted onto a die cut press and, as successive puzzles pass underneath it, it plummets down at a force of roughly 700 tons, instantly splitting it into pieces. These are then disassembled in a scrambling machine.
Throughout this part of the process, some manufacturers use cameras to ensure the puzzle is properly cut and that all the pieces are present and accounted for.
The newly separated puzzle pieces are then conveyed, usually being dropped into a plastic bag and sealed. That bag is then conveyed to be inserted into the puzzle box. From there, it’s just a matter of shrink wrapping and placing the boxes onto pallets, ready to go.
Explaining how Jigsaw Puzzles are Made
So there we have it. No more puzzling over questions like “how do they make a jigsaw puzzle”, “how are jigsaw puzzles made” or “how are jigsaw puzzles produced”. The last piece has clicked into place revealing the full picture.